Sophia's Story
I felt it was my responsibility to calm dad down in order to protect mum

One interesting thing about Mum and Dad was their public persona. In the street they lived in later in life everyone had nicknames, and they were known as ‘The Lovers’. They used to walk out arm in arm, and they did things together. So there was that aspect of their relationship too – along with the violence.

I had a kind of deal with God – that I would only have one tummy bug a year and there would be only one of these screaming, bashing incidents a year. I used to tell myself that if I could get through it, there wouldn’t be another for a year – and that’s probably the way it did go. So once it was over, there was a sense of relaxation because I would tell myself I had a year till the next one. But actually, the tension was still there because you had no idea when it would happen again.

It was the not knowing when it would happen that caused the constant sense of anticipation for me. I had that yearly cycle of anticipation, but there was also a weekly cycle. Thursday, Friday and Saturday were dangerous days. The pubs still closed at six o’clock then, but my father belonged to a club and he would drink there and come home drunk. Once I’d got through to Sunday the tension would go down a bit, but then the cycle would begin again.

One effect of that anxiety-ridden waiting game of my childhood is that I can’t stand anything where I have to wait in anticipation. If I go to a movie and I know that something’s going to happen, I can’t sit there and wait for it. I spent the whole of The English Patient in the foyer because I knew the couple would get caught. I couldn’t cope with anticipating the outcome. I didn’t want to get caught up in their emotion.

It wasn’t until I grew up that I saw the connection between what happened in my childhood and my inability to wait for things to unfold. It is still all-pervasive. If my partner is going out drinking, I can’t stand staying home. I’ll drive to a friend’s place just so that I won’t be waiting at home. When there’s sport on television at the club I belong to, I’ll leave because I feel as if I might influence the outcome negatively. It’s as if my being there watching is somehow going to make it worse.

At the age of nine I went to boarding school. My auntie talked my mother into sending me to the Catholic school my cousin had gone to. I didn’t know anything about Catholicism. My mother had been brought up a Catholic, but she wasn’t practicing by then. Part of sending me to boarding school was to protect me, and I went with a huge sense of relief. But I was also wracked with guilt because I felt I’d abandoned my mother; so it was a double-edged sword.

One of those really bad incidents happened after I went there. The bones in my mother’s face were broken. She always insisted that she had walked into a door in the dark, but I didn’t believe that. She had to go into hospital and have her face reconstructed. She was numb for many years. I felt guilty that I hadn’t been there when it happened. I always felt a sense of being responsible and needing to protect her. I felt she was a bit fragile and vulnerable.

I felt it was my responsibility to calm Dad down in order to protect Mum and myself. If I didn’t he might blow up and become really dangerous. Once I sat next to him all night after he’d been drinking spirits because he couldn’t go to sleep. He liked having his hair combed, so I used to comb his hair for ages. When I was a little kid I used to sit on the back of the couch to do it, and later I’d stand behind the couch.

I also used to stroke his head. I wonder if this was something he found comforting because his mother had done it when he was a baby. Mothers stroke their babies’ heads when they are feeding them. When people suddenly suffer grief they’ll stroke their face, and that’s where all their pleasure feelings as a baby were, when they were feeding at the breast. I find I stroke my hair if I am stressed, and I am sure my mother must have stroked my head.

I wonder now if my father had an allergy to alcohol because I could see the difference in his face after he’d had only one drink. If you had photos of him ‘in drink’ and ‘out of drink’ he would look quite different. The elasticity of his face altered; one eyebrow lifted. It was quite sinister. He would become hyperactive. Alcohol seemed to trigger him off, like sugar does a hyperactive child. He was like a wound-up spring, and he had to be ranting and raving and doing.

He came from a family of alcoholics. His grandfather had owned breweries and hotels and used to send Dad’s father and his brother to buy drinks for people in pubs as an advertising thing. They both turned out to be alcoholics. I never heard anything about my grandfather being violent to my grandmother, but his brother was a very violent alcoholic.

My father grew up feeling life wasn’t fair and that he’d missed out. His mother was a Seventh Day Adventist and she was very strict with him. He wasn’t allowed to play with other kids or play sport. Because of his mother’s religion, he didn’t drink till he was about 40 and he drank beer, hardly ever spirits.

He pulled himself up in the world and became a well-respected businessman, the manager of a branch of a nationwide company. But there was always that undercurrent that things had been unfair on him. He was quite negative about things, and I now think he probably suffered from depression.